William M. Ashby, a fighter for civil rights for more than nine decades,
was New Jersey’s first black social worker.
Born on October 15, 1889, in Carter's Grove, Virginia, he traced his family back four generations and found only free landowners. But landowner status did not shield his family from atrocity. His grandfather was bludgeoned to death by four white men who were jealous of his wealth.
In 1911, after graduating from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Ashby found that his diploma was of little help in securing employment. He became a waiter in Newark. Soon after, he heard Eugene V. Debs, the fiery labor leader, speak at Newark’s Labor Lyceum, urging his listeners to serve the oppressed.
Mr. Ashby applied to Yale University and, in 1916, received a degree in divinity. At Yale, he invited Booker T. Washington to speak at a meeting that turned out to be the great educator's last public appearance. After graduating from Yale, Ashby was hired as a social worker.
Soon after, he joined the Urban League, founding the branches in Newark and Elizabeth. He was its leader for ten years. From 1917-1932, Ashby was involved in social caseworker and private businesses. From 1932-1944, he directed the Urban League of Springfield, and from 1944, until his retirement in 1953, he was the director of the Elizabeth branch.
Ashby also served in various positions with the Newark NAACP, the Newark Human Rights Commission, the Newark Senior Citizens Commission, and the New Jersey Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In 1973, at the age of 84, he helped found the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee.
In 1981, he published Tales without Hate, a 200 page memoir about his experiences as a boy growing in Virginia before the turn of the century, and as the first black social worker in New Jersey. He also describes his encounters with such notable celebrities as Paul Robeson, Marion Anderson, Lillian Russell, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Dubois.
In November 1974, he was honored by a mayoral proclamation of William Ashby Day in Newark. Honored with a monument in in Newark's Central Ward in 1991, he died the following year at the age of 101.
NASW-NJ was proud to honor the memory of William M. Ashby, a civil rights and social work pioneer with the 2013 President’s Award.
We Must Never Forget the Progress and Struggle of African-Americans! By:NASW-NJ Vice President Tawanda Hubbard
Edith Savage-Jennings Civil Right Activist